Sexual Assault Overview
Sexual Assault: Definition
Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape. All states prohibit sexual assault, but the exact definitions of the crimes that fall within the category of sexual assault differ from state to state. The laws share some basic elements, but the structures, wording and scope of sexual assault offenses vary considerably, so always check your local statutes for specific questions.
Proving Sexual Assault Charges
In general, sexual assault is involuntary sexual contact that occurs through the actor's use of force, coercion or the victim's incapacitation. The law will consider the victim incapacitated if he or she did not have the mental ability to understand the nature of the sexual acts, or if the victim was physically incapable of indicating their unwillingness to participate in the sexual conduct. Common examples of these charges may arise from the use of alcohol or date rape drugs, both of which can make it impossible for a victim to legally consent to sexual conduct.
Modern sexual assault laws cover nonconsensual sexual contact that occurs between any sex and between people of any age. For example, most sexual assault laws cover involuntary sexual contact occurring between two men, two women or two children, etc., not just an adult man and woman.
Most states have made sexual assault the umbrella term for other crimes, such as rape and unwanted sexual contact. Some states distinguish between crimes involving penetration and crimes involving coerced or involuntary touching, making the former an aggravated or first-degree sexual assault and the latter a lower-level sexual assault.
Spousal Sexual Assault and Federal Law
Most states have also extended sexual assault laws to cover spousal sexual assault. States typically accomplished this in one of three ways: by removing the specific exemption for spousal assaults that existed in many sexual assault laws, by removing marriage as a defense to the sexual assault charge, or by creating a separate law prohibiting sexual assault on a spouse.
The federal statute outlawing sexual assault tracks the general principles of sexual assault discussed above and prohibits any sexual act that occurs as a result of the actor threatening or placing the victim in fear. It also prohibits sexual acts occurring when the victim is incapacitated.
Sexual Assault: State Laws
While the classification of sexual crimes is generally not too different from one U.S. jurisdiction to the next, states often have slightly different sentencing guidelines and definitions. Some states separate the various acts into different crimes, while other states lump them together under a single category.
For example, the crime of sexual battery in Florida covers such acts as rape and indecent assault -- which were once separate crimes. Regardless of the severity of the crime, it is always charged as a serious felony. And when the victim is under 12 years old (assuming the perpetrator is an adult), the penalty upon conviction is 30 years to life in prison. In California, sexual assault that leads to unwanted sexual intercourse is charged as rape. See FindLaw's directory of state sexual assault laws to learn more.
Get Legal Help with Your Sexual Assault Case
If you have been charged with sexual assault, you should know that the penalties can be quite severe, including prison time in many cases. It is always in your best interests to seek the counsel of a qualified criminal defense attorney licensed to practice in your state if you find yourself in this position.